A Grey Valentine’s Chapter One

An early riser by nature and necessity, Chrissie Roston was already up and dressed for work when she heard a deadening thud from her mother’s room at half six on a Monday morning.

She threw open the master bedroom’s door and rushed to her mother’s side where she lay beside the bed.

“Don’t fuss,” Helena protested. Her usually braying voice was barely a rasp and her thick black hair clung to her pallid face. More worrying was how she remained on the floor. “I tripped, that’s all.”

“Are you alright? Let’s get you up.” Chrissie slipped her hands under her mother’s arms and helped her onto the bed. Alone she couldn’t have lifted her bulk but Helena had never been short on willpower and that more than anything got her perched on the edge of the quilt.

“I slipped, that’s all. You-” She broke off with a hacking cough and Chrissie grabbed the glass of water off the bedside from its habitual spot between the old alarm clock and the picture of her aged ten at her first choral concert. Helena grasped the glass tightly in her ring encrusted hand as she gulped.

“Stay home today Mum, please.”

“Nonsense.”

“You’ve got the flu, there’s no way you can work.”

“It’s a little cold. I probably picked it up from those brats at Sunday school. Nothing to worry about.” The coughing racked her again and she doubled over. When she spoke her voice was even fainter than before. “Besides, someone has to run the café.”

“I can.” Chrissie adjusted her thick rimmed glasses as excitement seeped through her. “I’m there as much as you are and I know how to do everything anyway. It’s no problem.”

Helena frowned. “It’s Valentine’s Day this Saturday. What if it’s too busy for you to handle alone? And what about your plans?”

“I don’t think ‘too busy’ is likely to be a problem for us,” Chrissie replied and Helena pursed her lips. “And you know I never have any plans.”

“What about the new people upstairs? They’re moving in this week. No, it’s too much for you.” Helena made to push herself off the bed and Chrissie placed a hand on her shoulders.

“Upstairs won’t be any trouble. I’ve can do this. Take a day or two off for once.”

“I suppose I do have a rather loud headache,” Helena said. She slowly lay down and Chrissie arranged the duvet around her. “Alright dear. But let me know the second anything goes wrong. And don’t take on more than you can handle. And-”

“I’ve got this,” Chrissie promised. “I’ll make you proud.”

 

Greyshore’s twisting cobbled streets were not designed for the hulking white van attempting to park in front of her bright yellow café. The historic stone buildings of the old seaside resort meant the roads had never been modernised and while Chrissie loved the traditional style of her home, it was a right pain when anything larger than a Mini tried to get down the high street. The moving vans that accompanied the constantly changing businesses upstairs were by definition larger than a Mini and so when she found one there this morning she helped guide the driver into place without waiting to be asked. She was fairly certain he was the same guy as last time.

The teenage part-timers Kelly and Valerie hadn’t arrived so Chrissie tied up her red hair, pulled on her yellow apron and readied the café alone. She preferred it that way, the quiet room basking in the glow of the lamps scattered about as the dark February morning pressed against the glass, armchairs waiting to be filled by all sorts of people, the coffee machines sleeping before she woke them in clouds of steam. A moment of quiet before the busier work of the day began, though they’d been getting less of that for months now.

Everything was wiped down, turned on and set up by the time Valerie appeared late, which was not unusual, and without Kelly, which was.

“Where’s Kelly?” Chrissie asked.

Valerie yawned as she drifted around the counter to hang her shoulder bag and coat in the broom cupboard they called a break room. “She told me to tell Helena thanks for the job and not to be mad, but she’s gone to work at that fancy place on the seafront. The one your ex runs.”

Chrissie followed her to the doorway of the hot cramped room. “Simon’s place? Why’s she done that?”

“Better pay and better view she said.” Valerie raised her eyebrow conspiratorially. “I think she likes him. He’s hosting some sort of Valentines’ event so maybe she thinks she’s got a chance.”

It took concerted effort to keep a straight face at the idea of suave Simon being interested in a gawky, if pretty, teenager like Kelly. He was a creep, but not like that.

The bell above the café door jangled, saving Chrissie from having to pursue that line any further. Then she frowned. “Can you finish setting up?” she asked. “I’ll handle this.”

Smiling for the customers and looking as though she meant it had never been a problem for Chrissie, but she had to fight to keep her cheerful demeanour when she emerged and found Alice Betley stood in the main café, one manicured hand on a wonky table and calculating eyes examining the room.

“I’m sorry; we’re not open yet.” Chrissie laid her hands on the counter to keep from fidgeting. “You’re welcome to take a seat for a few minutes.”

“I’m not here as a customer,” Alice replied. Her black heels clopped as she approached the counter. “I need to speak to Helena.”

“She’s ill. I’m in charge this week.”

“Then you’ll do.”

Now she was closer, Chrissie could see her eyes were red rimmed and concern washed over her. “Are you okay?”

Alice paused and confusion crossed her face, quickly replaced with a professional mask. “Simon and I broke up last night. I need to talk to you.”

 

Lucas Dart stepped off the early morning train to Greyshore and realised he’d lost track of what number town this was. It was unimportant. The towns he’d lived and worked in were the record of his failure to distinguish himself. If this place didn’t work out maybe he’d give up and take his parents’ job offer.

Despite these thoughts he hummed as he left the station. He was greeted with a view that dissolved into grey nothingness as the steep hill dropped away to the sea. The mist looked like a blank slate. He wasn’t surprised to see nobody about. Punctuality was not Jess’ strong point.

He settled himself on a damp bench and studied the posters lining the station wall. They first seemed part of that trend for old-style tourism posters but the date suggested they were originals never replaced. They filled him with nostalgia for an age of travel he would never experience. A time when skipping town to town was adventurous – not ‘flighty’ as his mother put it. He hadn’t mentioned the fact she’d spent a good ten years travelling with his father before he was born.

His phone buzzed with a text from Jess.

Got caught up in the shop. Meet me here.

A flurry of directions followed, signed with a host of emojis. They lead him to a dirty white van on the high street. He could tell it was the high street because every other store front was a charity shop. Bonus points – half were animal rescue.

Jess’ red leather jacket and short electric green hair drew the eye anywhere but doubly so when nobody else on the street was under sixty. He quietly joined her side and watched her supervise the moving men carrying one of the chairs inside. Her long sleeves covered her arms but he caught glimpses of the black inky coils against her brown skin at her wrists and curling up the back of her neck

“A bit tatty, isn’t it?” He’d worked in some dumps but even then the stuffing was mostly inside the chair.

“Shut up. They were all I could afford. Same as the place.” Even in thick soled leather boots she barely reached his shoulder, so she had to look up when she turned to him with a grin. “And what kind of a hello is that?”

He threw an arm around her and squeezed but she struggled free with a grumble. “Get off me. It’s only been a year or so.”

“And you haven’t changed at all.”

“Oi, I had red hair last you saw.”

“I meant since primary school.”

She laughed and lightly nudged him in the side. Lightly for her at least, so he resisted the urge to rub the spot.

“Dump your bag inside and help unload. I can’t wait to give you the tour.”

Lucas looked behind and noticed they were stood in front of a café, one of the little independent ones you usually find tucked away down some alley where the big chains won’t fit. The sunny yellow front seemed desperate considering the weather. The old bay windows showed squashy armchairs and cosy lamps and a redhead with glasses cleaning the counter. She caught his eye through the glass and smiled warmly.

Jess followed his line of sight. “Stop gawking. I know she’s pretty but you’ve got work to do.”

“I’m not gawking.” He averted his eyes to prove it. “I was just thinking it doesn’t look like our sort of place.”

“We’re above it. The stairwell is over there. I know what you mean though. We’re a bit different compared to what this town is used to but I’ve had a look around here and believe me; different could be exactly what this place needs.” Jess surveyed the street and crossed her arms. “We lived a couple of miles away when I was a teenager. It was dump then and it’s worse now.”

“Do you think this could work in such a quiet place?”

“It had better.” Jess tapped a red fingernail against her lip piercing and frowned. “I’ve poured everything I’ve got into this. I’m glad you’re here. I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else.” Lucas paused, unsure if the show of affection was a joke but she didn’t laugh. Instead she grinned and stared at the moving van with an excitement he hadn’t seen for years. His heart gave a faint twinge of regret that he wouldn’t be around to see for himself how it turned out.

 

Alice radiated a cool and composed aura until she sat in a cheap metal chair in the break room. Only then did Chrissie glimpse a crack in her. Like a vase painstakingly repaired after a fall – eggshell lines only visible in the right light. Here the right light was the weak electric yellow of the strip on the ceiling and Alice incessantly brushing her sleek black bob behind her ears.

Chrissie stood hands together, out of place in her own home. The silence stretched until she had to speak. “I know breakups are hard but-”

“I didn’t come here for counselling.” Alice folded her hands and met Chrissie’s eyes. “I have a proposal for you. I know it’s unorthodox but present circumstances have left my previous venue unsuitable.”

“You want to us to host another event?” Alice had often used the café as a venue but that quickly dried up, along with a fair chunk of the café’s income, when she started dating Simon almost a year ago.

“Yes. It’s short notice I’m afraid, but-”

“When?” Chrissie grabbed the other chair and dragged it around to face Alice. In the tight space their knees were almost touching, old jeans under a yellow apron and new tights. Alice smoothed her black pencil skirt when Chrissie’s bouncing leg nudged her. “What sort of thing were you thinking?”

“What I had already planned was a sophisticated night of speed dating.” Alice’s eyes drifted through the door to the main café. “However, a cosier tone may suit this venue better.”

“We can do sophisticated.” Chrissie straightened in her seat. “Maybe we’re not shiny like Simon’s place but we’re not bad.”

“I know you’re not.” Alice clicked open her briefcase and drew out a leather covered notepad. “This place has a certain charm I think would have suited several of my recent events.”

“Then why didn’t you ask us?” Alice looked away and Chrissie felt instant guilt. “Sorry, it’s your business. You can run it how you like.”

“So you’d think.” One of Alice’s humourless smiles crept across her scarlet lips. “Simon wouldn’t let me. Or more accurately, he’d talk me out of choosing you and I’d let him.” Abruptly she flicked through her notebook. “I have the details here.” She tore out a page and passed it over.

Chrissie broke into a grin as she read the first line. “It’s on Valentine’s Day?”

“What better time to meet someone new?”

No better than any other time of the year in Chrissie’s experience. She assumed it was no worse because that was impossible. “But that’s this weekend.”

“I told you it was short notice.” Alice reached for the paper. “If you can’t do it then I’ve already wasted enough time here.”

“No, I can do it.” Chrissie tightened her grip on the paper though Alice hadn’t touched it. “But you used to give months of warning.”

Alice looked away. “As I said, the previous venue is now unavailable.”

“Simon cancelled on you?”

“Simon accused me of cheating on him, refused to listen to reason and then produced pictures he’d secretly taken of me in business meetings with various people as ‘proof.’” If it had been anyone else Chrissie would have reached for their hand by now, but even on the verge of tears Alice kept up a wall. Chrissie averted her eyes to allow the proud woman some privacy.

When Alice continued her voice had its usual clipped tone. “Then, yes, he cancelled on me. For some reason he was unable to separate his personal life and business. I believe you may be familiar with that issue of his.”

Chrissie grimaced. “He’s a right pain sometimes. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you two.”

“I’m not. Some of those pictures were from weeks ago. He was waiting for the right time to strike.”

“Bastard.”

Alice appeared to appreciate that more than any sympathy and they shared a hesitant smile.

“So what do you need us to do for the event?”

“Not much. Provide refreshments and snacks, arrange the seating, play hostess… I’ll send you a full list later – if you’re taking the job?”

“Yeah, absolutely.”

“Are you sure you can handle it?”

“It’ll be perfect.”

“I hope so.” Alice snapped close her briefcase and stood. “If all goes well I might start using you again.”

Chrissie’s mind churned with possibilities as she walked Alice to the door. She saw new customers in her café, a new breath of life to the wheezing business. Her mind raced ahead of her sense, filling in a future where the couples matched on Saturday returned to the café, returned to the town, settled down and raised a family. She saw a prosperous town full of people again, like her father always wanted.

Or, more likely, the extra cash would see her and her mother through another month. She reigned herself in before she got too carried away with thoughts of a church choir with enough people for harmonies.

She said goodbye to Alice and was about to head inside when she noticed the huge leather chair the delivery men were straining under. It didn’t look quite like the usual ones you found in beauty salons like the last four or five places upstairs had been. She turned to go inside but paused when the stairwell door opened and a short woman with a shock of green hair ambled out.

“Jess?” Chrissie took a step towards the woman who jerked round and stared openly back.

“Do I know you?”

Her initial excitement fizzled a little at the lack of recognition but she did have red hair now. “Chrissie Roston. We were in business studies at school together?”

Jess’ eyebrows scrunched together. When they were fifteen she’d had only one piercing there, now there were three. “Oh wow, yeah, I remember. You look a little different now. What are you doing in Greyshore still?”

“I work in the café.” She tried not to bridle at the ‘still.’ “You?”

“I finally started my own business,” Jess announced and pointed to the top floor. “I guess we’re neighbours now, isn’t that great?”

Her grin was infectious and Chrissie felt enthusiasm blossoming inside. They’d attended the same comprehensive for a year, then Jess left and she hadn’t heard of her since. They’d gotten on well but had never been particularly close. Chrissie was surprised at how glad she was to see her again. “What sort of business?”

A tall, dark haired man in a leather jacket walked out of the stairwell, squinted in the light and almost bumped into Jess. “Is there much left?” he asked.

“I think it’s mostly inks now,” Jess replied.

He didn’t reply as he noticed Chrissie for the first time. She smiled, vaguely recognising him as someone who was outside earlier. His eyes flicked to the side, as though checking she was looking at him. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled. It felt genuine.

“Hi, I’m Chrissie.”

“Hi.” His voice was lower than she’d expect from his slim frame but it suited him. There was a pause until Jess bumped his shoulder in what Chrissie suspected was meant to be a subtle way. “I’m Lucas,” he finally added. “I’ll go get the-” He nodded towards the van and strode off to collect some cardboard boxes. There was something sweet in the way he kept glancing back.

“He’s my best friend,” Jess said. “Nice guy. He’s helping me get the place set up. Opening a tattoo parlour takes a lot of work.”

Chrissie took a breath, ran the words through her mind again and when it reached the same nonsensical answer she had to conclude she’d heard wrong. “What was that?”

“I’m opening Greyshore’s first tattoo parlour.” Jess pulled up her sleeve to reveal the bare dark skin and darker designs. Flowers and stars and twisting shapes Chrissie couldn’t understand, or maybe that was her vision twisting as she grappled with what was happening. “We’re going to change things up a bit around here,” Jess said, or promised, or threatened.

Chrissie no longer saw the tattoos, just the town she knew and loved slipping away from her, mutating into something unrecognisable – a Greyshore that was no longer her Greyshore.

Jess saw none of that. She saw the chance for her dream to come true. Chrissie knew what that was like, so she knew it was without malice when Jess asked, “Do you want to be our first customer?”

“Beautiful and engaging” – jasmc, Smashwords reviewer

“Wonderful, heartwarming and sincere.” – Nicholas Sly, Smashwords reviewer

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